THE MEANING OF DEATH THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD, A LOVE AFFAIR WITH LAHORE, AND THE DOUBLE LIFE OF THE IMMIGRANTS
By Aanchal Malhotra
Kanza Javed lives and writes in Lahore. Her manuscript, Ashes, Wine and Dust was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013, making her at the age of twenty-one, the youngest and the only Pakistani writer nominated for the prize that year. The novel was released at the Kumaon Literature Festival in October, 2015. Kanza is currently teaching Literature at Kinnaird Women s College, Pakistan.
Aanchal Malhotra: Your debut novel, ‘Ashes, Wine and Dust’ was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013. Tell us about the book and the three words that make up its title.
Kanza Javed: It is story that spans across three generations of a family, each encumbered by their own conflicts, external and internal. It is about their longings, desires and secrets.
In the novel, Mariam, the protagonist, straddles three different worlds – ‘Ashes’ captures Mariam’s childhood with her sisters and grandparents. It tackles the theme of mourning and understanding what loss and death may mean to a child. I was very fixated by a thought, what happens when the confusing and daunting world of adults interfere with the world of children? Perhaps much of Ashes is immersed in my own childhood.
‘Wine’ deals the concept of duality. It focuses on the displacement and disorientation of characters who have migrated to a foreign land. It asks the question, is there such a thing as a perfect balance? Is it possible to shed your skin and become a new person?
And Dust takes a full circle and brings us back to Lahore, a new, cosmopolitan city inflicted with political and other external forces that somehow fracture its divinity and old- world charm.
AM: Displacement and belonging become central themes in the book- whether it be in Mariam’s own life as she travels from Lahore to Washington DC, or the shift from village to city life. Can you talk a little about these?
KZ: In Ashes, the idea of displacement is very vivid in Grandfather and Mariam’s characters. It is a complicated relationship. In Wine, the displacement is obvious. There are immigrant characters that lead double lives; exist in a state of “inbetween-ess.” I guess the question really is, do people like Mariam and Grandfather, who choose to cling to the past and memories, ever really belong anywhere? Is the past a place? Can it be called home? Are these people ever happy?
AM: Death, mourning and loss also play a large role in shaping Mariam’s outlook of the world as she grows up. In fact, the book begins with the death of her grandfather. Tell us about that…
KZ: I lost my grandmother when I was sixteen and for a long time, I had no closure. During the funeral days, I observed the mourners, the funerary rituals, and most importantly, the children that accompanied their mothers. The elders were always so engrossed in the prayers and preparations that the children almost disappeared. They did not understand what was going on, and they had so many questions that no one had time to answer. That image remained with me. I knew I had to open the book with a similar scene, hence the eight-year-old Mariam trying to comprehend her grandfather’s death.
AM: Your protagonist is a very complex character. How much of her is a character sketch of the youth of the Subcontinent; a sketch of peoples in constant change- where history, traditions and culture is slowly receding and modernism is taking over.
KZ: It was interesting to be in Mariam’s head. She is progressive, resilient and at the same time has inhibitions and resistance. She has her flaws, shortcomings and does not conceal them. She has that profundity and sensitivity and independence that is necessary to survive in the “modern” world, but she also knows understands the value of past relationships, with her daddi, Karan, her friend from the village, and the maid. While she yearns for change and freedom, she understands that she can’t fully leave behind the skin of traditions, culture, roots and other institutions that bind people together. The novel is a love-affair with Lahore, but there are two different cities that Mariam lives in. One is in Ashes, an old-world Lahore so deeply immersed in culture and family, and the other is in Dust, a new Lahore, where she feels disoriented as it is inhibited by many foreign influences. Through Mariam’s character we can very obviously see the dilemma of the new generation, this existence of hybridity, a yearning for the old world but at the same time longing to be new and free.
AM: As someone who began writing her debut novel at the age of 17, was shortlisted for a major manuscript prize by the age of 21 and is now published at the age of 24, you deal with quite a mature subject matter, dense themes that are dealt with quite elegantly through the text. Tell us how you began writing, where you draw your inspiration from, and how much it has changed as your writing career and the novel have progressed.
KZ: I began writing this book when I was seventeen. It kept changing its shape and spirit. I drew inspiration from the people I met, their characteristics, and used artistic license to mould my story about them. For the longest time I did not know what I was doing but I knew I had to write, and the more I wrote, the more observant I became. I drew from the lives of my grandparents and my parents. I began observing the city I live in more carefully. I went to Washington for a semester and something about the Capital stayed with me. I knew D.C. had to be in the story and I knew Mariam had to be there to discover more about herself.
AM: The release of your novel on Skype is an interesting parallel to the life of the protagonist, where she too, needs to fight against all odds to achieve her goals.
KZ: I still can’t believe that happened. I can’t be more grateful to KLF, my publishers and the people who were there for me. But yes, that was a very Mariam-esque moment for me and my editor, Aanchal. It was very ironic and we both laughed for a long time.
AM: As a young, successful writer, what advice would you have for others that are beginning this journey?
KZ: Write what you would wish to read. Write about what has touched you, hurt you and terrified you.
AM: What are you working on next?
KZ: I can’t say precisely. There are characters and they are doing something. I still don’t know what.